Since my last visit to Srinagar, the drive from Sheikh ul-Alam International Airport into the city has become much smoother, I observe. There is a flyover now, which starts from Chanapora and goes all the way to Jahangir Chowk, depositing you in the heart of the city. If you are headed to the houseboats, you can get off midway at Bakshi Stadium.
Memories of past arrivals come flooding back. One time the solitary cherry tree outside the airport terminal was blooming with abandon. Another time coincided with the death anniversary of Burhan Wani, and the streets were eerily empty.
The Kashmiris are a beleaguered lot but they are nothing if not stoic and, as always, I am met with warmth and wide smiles. Perhaps the very Kashmiri strain of Sufism has something to do with this.
So, which is Kashmir’s most beautiful season? The competition is neck and neck, but my vote goes to autumn. It is truly the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. There is a delicious slowing down, a turning inwards in preparation for winter. The summer blizzard of tourists is over, and Srinagar can stretch its arms again. The leaves of the chinar tree—which the Sufi saints are said to have brought from Iran—are turning into myriad shades of brown, red, orange, russet, and golden yellow. They shed in the millions in the storied gardens the Mughals left behind and must be religiously swept every day. I walk in Naseem Bagh. Established by Akbar in 1586 and now a campus of the University of Kashmir, it has the largest stand of chinars, incidentally the same species as the Tree of Hippocrates, under which the “father of medicine” taught on the island of Kos in Greece.
The pristine Boulevard Road, which runs along Dal Lake, is always great for a walk, but this time I head into the Zabarwan Hills surrounding Srinagar. I am in the buffer zone of Dachigam National Park, accompanied by a local naturalist who knows every bird, bush, and tree in sight. No wonder he is off to Mumbai shortly to pick up an award. The mountain air is bracing, as crisp as a Kashmiri apple. I am not sure my inured-to-pollution lungs can take it. My naturalist friend tells me Kashmir’s fall colours used to be much richer earlier. That is global warming for you.
The Old City of Srinagar is as charming as ever. Kashmiris love their breads, and the bakeries do brisk business. The smell of harissa, a seasonal speciality, wafts in. It is a nutritious gruel of Kashmiri sticky rice, lamb meat (it is always sheep in Kashmir, not goat), and spices, cooked overnight, then finished quite dramatically with smoking mustard oil. Only a smattering of shops in the Old City carry on the tradition. Downtown Srinagar, as the Old City is also called, is bedecked with shrines to Sufi saints, like the exquisite Khanqah-e-Moula on the banks of the Jhelum. Decorated with papier mache, it is one of the finest examples of Kashmiri wooden architecture. On a much grander scale is the Jamia Masjid, its soaring roof supported by 378 wooden columns.
But the shrine I want to see is a modest little one down a quiet street in Khanyar. Roza Bal is believed to be the burial place of a Muslim holy man and sage, Yuz Asaf. In 1899, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, claimed that Yuz Asaf was none other than Jesus Christ. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the shrine. A board outside it quotes from the Quran: “That they [Jews] said in boast we killed Christ Jesus the Son of Mary the Apostle of Allah, but they killed him not nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them…” The Ahmadiyya claim is rather fascinating, but Srinagar seems unbothered by all the fuss and simply goes about its business.
Goodbye seems to be the hardest part, but it is not what you think. Owing to security concerns peculiar to Srinagar leaving paradise is nothing short of hell. As you approach the airport, you must disembark from your vehicle, get your ID and tickets checked, lug your bags into a building for screening, then load them back on your vehicle, before being dropped off at the airport’s parking area (no, you are not allowed to drive to the entrance, not unless you are VIP or Army). And it does not matter if you are old, pregnant, or with kids. It is enough to ruin your holiday.
The one thing that Kashmiris do not look forward to is the chillai kalan—the harshest 40 days of winter—but it cannot be as bad as this. My advice is always to travel light, but especially in Kashmir, where baggage can weigh you down in every sense of the word.
Amit Dixit is a travel writer and photographer based in Delhi. He is former editor, Outlook Traveller.